Book Review: This House of Grief by Helen Garner

I don’t read a lot of true crime but just finished Helen Garner’s work, This House of Grief. I know some people find the genre too hard because of the voyeuristic nature of it, or because they cannot bear to hear about the terrible things people are capable of doing to one another. The genre is often criticised for being disrespectful to victims and their families, an argument that primarily revolves around issues of consent, appropriation, representation and concerns when stories are embellished for the purposes of drama.

Those who do like true crime reference its value in providing insight into, and an understanding of, the inner workings of the legal system and human behaviour. There have been instances of true crime pieces shining a light on forgotten cases and having an extraordinary impact, such as facilitating the resolution of unsolved crimes or the reopening of cold case investigations. Rachael Brown’s, Trace, a true crime podcast series about the cold case of the murder of single mother Maria James at the back of her bookshop in 1980 resulted in a new coronial investigation. Katherine Kovacic’s historical fiction novel, The Portrait of Molly Dean, based on a 1930 unsolved murder delivers a sensitive remembrance for a largely unknown young woman who’s life might otherwise have been forgotten.

This House of Grief by Helen Garner is a non fiction true crime story about the murder trial of Robert Farquharson. Farquharson was charged after the car he was driving left the road and crashed into a dam outside of Winchelsea, Victoria and resulted in the death of his three children on Father’s Day. Farquharson was convicted to three terms of life imprisonment without parole in 2007. The original conviction was overturned in 2009 but a retrial again found him guilty of murder and he was sentenced to life imprisonment with a 33 year minimum.

Garner never interviewed Farquharson but did attend both trials as part of her process of writing the book. The trial and re-trial form the narrative spine of the novel in which Garner herself is both a witness to events, and a character within the text. The story blends Garner’s personal experience of the harrowing trial with the procedural formality of the legal system. Her her own emotional responses to the unfolding evidence, and the mundanities of her everyday life run along side the factual reporting of the trials. It is written with the calm eloquent voice of an observer equipped with the exceptional skills of a fiction author and a fearless honesty. Garner strives for an empathic understanding of the terrible event as the rational, ordered legal system tries to make sense of it and find the truth at the centre of all the swirling grief. She lays her own and others emotions, prejudices, and preconceived notions of human behaviour bare, challenging their intractable nature and unreliability on the page.

As Garner records and critiques the courtroom drama and her own conflicting responses to it, she describes in expressive detail impressions of the people she encounters in appearance, language and tone, the mood of the room, the surreptitious glances and subtle shifts in body language. When the evidence leans toward a guilty verdict Garner clings to the possibility of reasonable doubt because she doesn’t want to believe a father could be capable of intentionally killing his three children. When rebuked by a barrister friend, she reflects on the question of why lawyers always make her feel stupid. It seems to be a comment on gendered views where the legal system is masculine and certain, but she is feminine and tentative.

Garner has received both praised and criticism for this work and other true crime books she has written (Joe Cinque’s Consolation; The First Stone). I found This House of Grief a fascinated and compellingly intimate insight into Garners inner world. In striving to be objective she had to wade through confusion, doubt and sudden flights of compassion or repulsion she felt for the subjects of her study, and her own responses to those feeling.

Ultimately This House of Grief raised more questions for me than it answered – about the fallibility of the legal system and the ambiguity in taking a highly technical procedural process and asking ordinary emotion laden laypeople to make a judgement of certainty about what they hear; about our societies insistence on imposing gender stereotypes that sometimes turn out men so incapable of managing their own emotional turmoil they carry out terrible acts in some misconceived belief it will soothe their own pain; about women unable to reconcile the possibility that love and vengeance can coexist in a way that can make the ones they love capable of both great heroism and of terrible violence; about how our own social conditioning, past experiences and emotional worlds shape how we perceive and interpret what goes on around us; and how our individual prejudices and beliefs shape what we can and cannot bear to hear and believe about the world.

Rare crime

Each winter Melbourne hosts Rare Book Week which delivers a program of free talks and events across the city to celebrate the importance of books, literacy and literature. Twice this week I fought my way through the dark, windy and desolate streets of Docklands to Library at the Dock, which is a fabulous library and community hub if you are ever in the area.

The events I attended were The Knife is Feminine about Australian mystery writer Charlotte Jay, and Portraits of Molly Dean in conversation with author Katherine Kovacic on her true crime book about the murder of Molly Dean in St Kilda in 1930. This blog is about those two events.

The Knife is Feminine

A dagger…it had a curious hilt shaped like a woman’s torso, with wings, only she had no face, just a visor like a knight.

The knife is feminine, Charlotte Jay

I’d never heard of Charlotte Jay, but as it turns out she was one of Australia’s best crime and thriller writers and I will certainly seek out some of her work to read now. Panel members for this event were Carmel Shute (one of the founders and national convener of Sisters in Crime), author Katherine Kovacic (The Portrait of Molly Dean and Painting in the Shadows), Abbe Holmes (actor) and Chris Browne (convener of Rare Book week, former academic and a book collector with 12,000 books and counting).

Charlotte was born Geraldine Mary Jay in Adelaide in December 1919, she chose the author name Charlotte because she thought it sounded literary. She married Albert Halls, an Oriental specialist who worked for UNESCO, and she spent much of her adult life traveling the world with him. Initially she worked as a stenographer for twelve “terrible years,” according to an interview Carmel Shute did with her in 1992. When she realised she had a talent for frightening people and telling a good story so became an author. Carmel observed that in life Jay had a liking for gin and tonic and a habit of snorting when she found others ideas ludicrous.

The author wrote seven crime novels as Charlotte Jay between 1951 and 1964, one as Geraldine Mary Jay in 1956, and seven as Geraldine Halls between 1967 and 1995. The stories in her novels included exotic settings like Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Japan, Thailand, England, Lebanon, India, the Trobriand Islands, as well as Australia.

One of her books, A Hank of Hair was so risqué that Harper Collins refused to publisher it. The book was later picked up by Pan Publishing and released in 1964. Another novel, The Fugitive Eye written in 1953 was filmed for television and stared Charlton Heston. Her first novel, The Knife Is Feminine is out of print and there are only a handful of copies still in existence worldwide. We were lucky enough to get a couple of readings from one of those copies.

She wrote in the Gothic tradition and hearing her work, Charlotte Jay had a talent for the weird . She used slow, creepy build ups and detailed observations to tell cracker stories. She was the first winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Writers of America Award for Beat Not the Bones set in Papua New Guinea, which has some fascinating commentary on racism and colonial power in the 1950s. The following year Raymond Chandler won the award with The Last Goodbye.

The writer eventually returned to Adelaide and her last book was published in 1995, she died in October 1996. I for one shall look forward to reading some of her works, which are listed below.

Charlotte Jay novels

• The Knife Is Feminine (1951)
• Beat Not the Bones (1952)
• The Fugitive Eye (1953)
• The Yellow Turban (1955)
• The Man Who Walked Away (US Title: The Stepfather) (1958)
• Arms for Adonis (1960)
• A Hank of Hair (1964)

Geraldine Mary Jay novels

• The Feast of the Dead (US Title: The Brink of Silence) (1956)

Geraldine Halls novels

• The Cats of Benares (1967)
• Cobra Kite (1971)
• The Voice of the Crab (1974)
• The Last Summer of the Men Shortage (1977)
• The Felling of Thawle : a novel (1979)
• Talking to strangers : a novel (1982)
• This is My Friend’s Chair (1995)

Portraits of Molly Dean

Mary (Molly) Winifred Dean (1905–1930) was brutally murdered in Elwood on 21 November 1930 near her home after walking home late one night. Author of The Portrait of Molly Dean, Katherine Kovacic first came across Molly when studying the art of painter and sculptor Colin Colahan and became fascinated by her life which seemed to have been reduced to a single sentence in a Colahan’s biography. Molly had been Colahan’s lover and one of his models.

The historical mystery fiction, The Portrait of Molly Dean, was written to shine a light on Molly’s life, which along with her death feature in a number of other works. She was the subject of non-fiction A Scandal in Bohemia: The Life and Death of Mollie Dean by Gideon Haigh, and appeared in fiction works My brother Jack by George Johnston, and The Eye of the Beholder by Betty Roland, as well as the play Solitude in Blue, written and directed by Melita Rowston.

Molly Dean trained as a primary teacher and showed great promise for the profession but aspired for journalism and writing. She had had one long blank-verse poem titled Merlin published in a Melbourne publication called Verse.

Young Molly had a strained relationship with her widowed mother, Ethel Dean, who didn’t approve of Molly’s involvement with the Bohemians – the Meldrumites (followers of painter Max Meldrum) who Molly met when she became intimately involved with Colin Colahan, a well-known sculptor and painter of nudes.

On 20 November 1930 Molly went to the theatre to see Pygmalion with friends. She arrived at StKilda station on the way home, but missed the last tram, apparently due to stopping to make two phone calls to Colin from a phone box, so walked the two kilometers to Elwood along the tram route to the corner of Mitford and Dickens Streets. There were a number of sightings of her as she walked, but no witnesses to her attack. She was discovered early on Friday 21 November severely injured in a laneway less than two hundred meters from her home. She was rushed to hospital but she died of her injuries.

The police believed that due to the nature of the crime, Molly probably knew her attacker and the motive was most likely jealousy. An intense and exhaustive police investigation followed her death. A family friend, who was suspected of having an affair with Ethel Dean was investigated then dismissed. A man called Arnold Karl Sodeman, who confessed to four other killings, was also considered. His involvement was dismissed primarily due to his other attacks having very different profiles, and that he swore he wasn’t Molly’s killer. Sodeman was executed in Pentridge Prison in 1936 for the crimes he admitted.

The Crown Prosecutor did not proceed with the case and conspiracy theories abounded about Molly’s unsolved murder over the years. One theory suggested it wasn’t solved because she’d crossed paths with very powerful people in Melbourne, and they had shut down the investigation.

Artist Colin Colahan

Katherine Kovacic’s fictionalised account of Molly’s story is a fascinating tale of art, intrigue and murder, and Melbourne’s history. Her melding of fact and fiction patches together a coherent and sensitive narrative to re-tell a victim’s story and shine a light on her young life. It’s told from the perspective of a fictional art dealer called Alex who buys a painting in 1999 believed to be the last portrait of Molly Dean. Kovacic has released a second book Painting in the Shadows that also revolves around Alex, and a third is due out next year.

For the section of this blog on Molly Dean I have drawn on Kovacic’s talk at Rare Books Week and a piece published on the Public Records Office website by Dr Eric J Frazer about her murder.

Main image: Charlotte Jay and The Knife is Feminine

Hit List: Australian Crime Writings

The Wheeler Centre are running a mini series to spotlight Australian genre writers. This weeks discussion focussed on crime writing and hosted an impressive line up of guests:

  • Emma Viskic, author of the Caleb Zelig series Resurection Bay, Fire Came Down and Darkness for Light (due out this year). Her debut novel won the 2016 Ned Kelly Award for best debut, as well as three David Awards.
  • Garry Disher has written two crime series (The Whyatt novels and The Challis and Destry Novels) as well as a number of stand alone crime novels (including Bitter Wash Road and Under the Cold Bright Lights), and a significant number of young adult, children’s, non fiction and short story works.
  • Sulari Gentill, author of historical crime series the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries, and fantasy adventure series, The Hero Trilogy and her most recent novel Crossing the Lines.
  • Rachael Brown, ABC journalist and creator of Trace, a true crime podcast about the cold case of the murder of single mother Maria James at the back of her bookshop in 1980. The series resulted in a new coronial investigation. Brown has also written a book of the same name
  • Laura Elizabeth Woollett, author of The Wood of Suicides, short story collection The Love of a Bad Man (shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction) and her latest novel, Beautiful Revolutionary.
  • Mark Brandi, author of Wimmera (winner of the Debut Dagger, UK) and The Rip.

The night opened with Emma Viskic speaking about the history of crime in Australia, that our map is a map of massacres and because of white mans beginnings we are a country of outsiders. It was pointed out that the outsider trying to decipher a crime and a place is a common trope in the genre.

Mark Brandi reflected that humans like to ask what it means to be a good person, and how to live a good life. We like crime stories, and they matter, because they are all about what it means to be good, and what it means to be bad. He wrote The Rip to help him make sense of his time spent working in the justice system.

Crime fiction is about the restoration of order, not the murders themselves. The authors discussed how crime fiction shines a light on the murky business of being human and can offer an understanding of why people do what they do to one another. These stories allow readers to sit at the shoulder of a evildoers and scoundrels from a safe distance and strive to understand. Readers are comforted that criminals are punished, or at least understand in noir and that when it all goes to hell, no matter how bad things get, someone will stand up and resist.

The best crime writing requires empathy, and for writers to see the world differently. A theme can drive a book and tell us something about human frailty and the world we live in, and we can delve into the political and social dimensions of crime in a deep way to foster understand, if we write with compassion.

Australian crime writing has the appeal of the different and dangerous, partly because of our landscape. There have been whispers around for some time that an Australian crime wave would replace Nordic noir in popularity, maybe it’s our time? The speakers thought Australian crime writing was of a good quality because authors don’t write for the money, it’s almost impossible to make a living just from writing, so they write because they have something to say – perhaps that makes it better.

There were some funny moments as well at the event, like when Sulari Gentill claimed crime writers as the cool kids of fiction and that she imagined they would be of more use than a poet if she ever need to fight her way out of a situation.

During question time one audience member asked who the authors favourite crime writers were (other than each other) and we got the following responses:

Peter Temple, Jock Serong, Harper Lee, Joyce Carol Oates, Helen Garner, John Sandford and Michael Connelly

Can you guess which favourite goes with which guest?

Main image: guest author book covers

Masterclass: Writing Crime

Last week I attended a crime writing masterclass as part of the Emerging Writers Festival held at the Wheeeler Centre in Melbourne.

Anna George and Mark Brandi

The day opened with Angela Savage, author and Director of Writers Victoria, delivering a keynote on Conventions of Crime. Angela took us on an engaging and entertaining gallop through the history of crime fiction. Then she explained the breakdown of crime genres from cosy mysteries like Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, hard boiled crime such as Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Australian noir including Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series and the social thrillers – think The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

And here’s a couple of ‘did you know’ fast facts from Angela’s talk:

• Agatha Christie is the best-selling fiction author of all time with an estimated two billion copies of her books in print. Her work has been translated into more than 70 languages and she is outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. Not bad considering her first book was rejected by six publishers.

• Tart noir (originally called slut noir) is a branch of crime fiction characterised by tough, independent female detectives, who are also yielding enough to love a man with rough edges. Go girrrls.

• Mysteries, where the antagonist is revealed at the end to both the reader and the protagonist, are considered easier to write than thrillers, which require tight plotting to maintain suspense.

Nayuka Gorrie, Queenie Bon Bon and Gala Vanting

The second session had Mark Brandi (author of Wimmera and The Rip) and Anna George (The Lone Child and What Came Before) chatting about plotting and pacing and how they approached these in their own writing. It became clear that each book is different and your approach to plotting and pacing might need to be adapted to work for the project on hand.

Angela recommended Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments of Writing Detective Fiction reproduced here by cosy mystery author Elizabeth Spann Craig.

In session three, Gala Vanting, Nayuka Gorrie and Queenie Bon Bon discussed the notion of Representing Criminalisation, a feminist perspective on writing socially aware crime fiction. This session wasn’t for everyone (a couple of blokes walked out), but I found it a fascinating discussion on the realities of criminalisation and how we might use our crime writing to look differently at societal power structures and the politicisation of marginalised communities. They challenged us to unpack our notions of ‘the criminal’ and ‘the victim’ and what we interpret as ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Their discussion lent itself to activist crime fiction, or radical noir. Think Eva Dolan, This is How it Ends, Gary Phillips, The Underbelly, Kate Raphael, Murder Under the Bridge and John le Carré, The Constant Gardener.

(?), Lindy Cameron and Anna Snoekstra

After a bite to eat at the Moat for lunch, I settled in to listen to Anna Snoekstra (Spite Game and Mercy Point) and Lindy Cameron, Sisters in Crime President and founder of Clandestine Press, talk about to agent or not to agent, the importance of a good synopsis, and thinking beyond our own shores for publishing. They said all crime novels need a good sense of place, a twisty mystery, and engaging characters to attract the attention of publishers.

One of the most memorable suggestions was to try different elevator pitches with every person who asks you about your book to see which is the best one…lookout friends, is all I can say to that.

Here are some resources they recommended to assist with your publishing journey:

Query Tracker – an international agent database, that is free to join.

The Australian Writers Marketplace – a guide to the writing and publishing industry in Australia and beyond, it has over two thousand active listings in the directory. AWM is free to join for basic use of pay a one off $24.95 for complete access.

The final session, Killing your Darlings, was delivered workshop style by Kat Clay. We talked cliches about killing people in fiction, understanding the moral argument and symbolism of murder in fiction, and thinking about what death means to our characters in terms of their development – it’s a very different matter if they are afraid of their own mortality than if they live for the thrill of being close to death.

Kat’s resource tip was Anatomy of Story by John Truby

Main image: What’s your genre?

The voices inside our heads

This week I went to see Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights. It’s the story of a scientist who trades his soul for electric light, obliterating the difference between night and day. It was an experience that required letting go – letting go of expectations of what to expect from a stage play. There was no neat plot to carry us through, and no temporal logic.

They are the ink that gives the white page meaning - artwork, Guggenheim museum, New York City;
Guggenheim, New York

The piece was a beautifully executed avant-garde romp with ambiguous and fractured identities that transitioned through a struggle between good and evil, and grappled with the notion of the individual. The script was poetic with looping lines that were deliberately repetitive and sprinkled with short acidic words that blurred the boundaries between dialogue and narrative. I was left for much of the production with a sensation of hearing the voices inside someone’s head.

I am not talking about the terrifying voices that haunt the sufferers of severe mental illness and render them lost to themselves for periods of time, I am talking about the quieter voices that chatter away in our heads. The voices that self sooth or offer observations, instructions, praise or admonishments in a way that we understand them to be part of ourselves, or that spill out of us onto a blank page in a controlled way to tell our stories. The inner voices that can speak the unspeakable, threaten, challenge, or desire in ways we believe our true selves never would in real life. The voices that take us deep within ourselves whilst simultaneously suspending us from our own realities. The ones that cause me to look up from a page and wonder where the words have come from.

Museum of Contemporary Art, NSW

The conversations of the brain were once seen as mythic – the rumblings of gods or shamans, but in reality our inner voice is the stream of consciousness that speaks when no one is listening but us. For most of us it is rarely shared with anyone, except when it erupts in moments of stress, or we lay on the couch and expose it to a therapist in an effort to understand, tame, or change it.

Look around you at the people walking down the street in silence and imagine their inner worlds teeming with chatter, or notice them trying to drown it out by plugging their ears with music that carries them to other places. Imagine the anarchy if all that chatter and noise was unleashed on the world uncensored.

In fiction we often talk about finding our unique voice, the one that can tell a tale in a way that no other can, that leaps off the page and turns words into three dimensional characters. Fiction is a realm in which we seek the unfettered and extraordinary. The more outlandish, edgy or strange our voice the better, as we try to take our readers to the edges of believability or to interrogate matters we may not dare to in real life. In fiction the inner voice can put a characters humour on display in serious situations such as in Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton:

Watch my language? Watch my language? This is what really shits me, when the clandestine heroin operation truth meets the Von Trapp family values mirage we’ve built for ourselves.

Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In fiction inner dialogue is like the voice within the voice. It is a mechanism that defines character in a way that dialogue and narrative cannot. It exposes our characters inner dilemmas, self perceptions, contradictions, humour and fears, making them available to the reader even though they are kept hidden from other characters. Inner dialogue invites us into stream of consciousness to bare witness to the fragmented, messy reality of what it means to be human.

Jack nodded vaguely. Merry was only recounting what she’d overheard, what she’d read, what she’d imagined down the years. He wondered suddenly if that’s how everyone constructed their own past – with the experiences of others, and photos, and headlines and snatches of reality, all mashed together into memories that they claimed as their own. For the first time he thought that the photo of them all, happy and with the wind in their hair, might never have existed either. Maybe it was all in his head and he’d only imagined it on the fridge, and the little frame he’d stolen from HomeFayre would be empty for ever.

Snap, Belinda Bauer
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Inner dialogue is commonly used in written fiction and sometimes on stage, such as in Hamlet’s well known soliloquy which opens with the words ‘to be or not to be’. The mechanism is rarely seen on the screen, though one exception is the television show Offpring in which the main character’s inner world is put on display in all its anxiety ridden psychedelic glory in a way that blurs Nina’s inner and out worlds. It is the use of that technique more than the plot itself that has drawn me to the show. I love the way her inner world looms up and threatens to derail her with the suddenness of a gusty wind.

Of course the original story of the erudite Faust is that he was highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life as a scholar. He made a pact with the devil to exchange his soul for unlimited worldly pleasures and knowledge and surrendered his moral integrity for power and success. The devils representative was Mephistopheles who helped Foust seduce a beautiful and innocent girl called Gretchen who’s life was destroyed when she gave birth to Faust’s bastard son and drowned the child. One can’t help wonder if both Faust and Gretchen where victims of their own inner dialogues rather than some external other worldly force though.

Image: What are they thinking?

Storytelling and editing

Storytelling existed long before the printed page came into existence. The earliest known discovery dates back to around 14,000 B.C. to the Lascaux Caves in the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France. The story drawn on the walls of a cave in pictures depicted the hunting practices and rituals in the area. The first printed word story was the epic of Gilgamesh carved on stone pillars thousands of years later in 700 B.C.

Rock Art, Utah

Of course oral storytelling has been a central part of human cultures for thousands of years, but dating it exactly, like dating when humans first began to speak, is impossible because words leave no trace in the archaeological record. Over time stories have been used to preserve cultures across generations, to teach social norms and transmit knowledge, to create community cohesion, and to entertain. Storytellers were the healers, the spiritual guides, leaders, keepers of culture, entertainers or jesters, and they transmitted their tales in the form of songs, poetry, orations and chants.

In some senses humans are stories because we are made up of the narrative constructs of our lives. Stories are how we are remembered, and how we remember others. A narrative is a powerful tool, and lives can literally be changed by them. Remember the books that influenced you as a child and moulded the way you think today? Stories give children access to their rich imaginations and deep fantasy lives and build emotional literacy. They help us to make sense of our world as well as challenge us to think about the world beyond our own narrow limits.

Telling Tales, Lamen Island, Epi, Vanuatu

For writers who subject themselves to the monkish like isolation required to create stories, writing is an activity that takes us deep within ourselves and draws us out all at the same time. An idea is often seeded by something that happens in the world around us, but when I look at what I have written retrospectively I usually wonder where it came from.

While I edit I have been thinking quite a bit about the difference between the written and oral forms of storytelling, because I use reading my work out loud to help with editing. Reading out loud allows me to hear the cadence, pacing and rhythm of my work. It puts my writing on display in a way that the written word does not.

An editor I know recently suggested I actually get someone else to read my work back to me as part of the editing process. She says how you hear your work is different again coming from another person and the exercise can help to further improve it. Getting someone else to read your work is particularly useful for grammar as it makes your realise that commas are far from meaningless markers. They cause a pause, or a breathe in vocalisation that you would not always pick up in silent reading. Punctuation alters the tone of the words they punctuate by indicating a change of idea, an increase in detail, or a change of speaker. Used incorrectly punctuation can confuse the reader, and when we confuse readers we throw them out of our stories.

DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague

I have been listening to a few audio books recently – and I do love an audiobook. They mean I read more because I can listen to them gardening, driving, walking, or when my eyes are too tired for the page. Though you do have to be wary of listening when you go to bed, because whilst it’s a lovely reminder of being read to sleep as a kid, there’s the risk of missing half the tale if you start snoring and the book keeps playing.

Well narrated audio books are an immersive experience that pulls you into the story when the reader infuses it with emotion. They can manipulate the pace by reading faster or slower, and vary tone and pitch for different characters to bring them to three dimensional life. You can’t skim an audiobook the way you can the printed word and in listening you can focus on the bricks of detail to notice how the writer has constructed the story. You can hear how they grab your attention and draw you deeper in, or do something that pushes you away, such as using large slabs of narrative that create distance.

I’ve been listening to Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton this week. It was named book of the year at the Australian book industry award and won audiobook of the year as well as a string of other acclamations. The story is based on Dalton’s own childhood growing up in a suburban Brisbane housing commission amongst drug dealers and criminals. Dalton’s use of dialogue is often hilarious, and his prose is evocative. He uses colorful details and wordplay to describe the minutiae of life and the deepest inner thoughts of Eli, drawing out the young narrators surreal imagination and philosophical meanderings. I’m only about half way though the audiobook but suspect I may want to turn around the read the written version as well when I’ve finished to see what I can learn there.

Main image: DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague

Review: Law Week Event on Stalking, Trolling and Cyber-Bullying

Sisters in crime hosted a Law Week event in partnership with Victoria University last week on the subjects of Stalking, Trolling and Cyber-Bullying. The Age journalist Wendy Tuohy, interviewed authors Ginger Gorman (Troll Hunting: Inside the world of online hate and its fallout), Emma A Jane (Misogyny Online: A short (and brutish) history) and Rachel Cassidy (Stalked – The Human Target) about predator trolls who use technology to bully, troll or stalk their victims to the extreme.

The author talks were reminiscent of Eileen Ormsby, author of The Darkest Web: Drugs, Death and Destroyed Lives, whom I listened to at Adelaide Writers Week. Ormsby talked about how the internet (her focus was the dark web) has created a safe place for bad people to meet, talk and normalise one another’s antisocial behaviour.

The Law Week speakers described the perpetrators of predator trolling as primarily narcissistic, entitled, anglo, straight young men. They often work in well organised, structured syndicates and find someone to target who they see as the ‘other’. They search for a targets weakness and then threaten harm or incite them to hurt themselves. They then set out to demonise, dehumanise and harm by choosing some characteristic (religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality) to focus their harassment on.

Gorman drew the analogy that cyberhate is the modern day version of workplace harassment and domestic violence. It was an interesting observation on the internet as a social device. As a communication tool the internet can amplify both the good and bad of what has historically only happened in the school yard or the workplace. However, unlike the schoolyard or workplace, there is little, if any attempt to moderate or prevent harmful behaviour online and without moderation or regulation the internet can become like the island in Lord of the Flies.

Ginger Gorman was not entirely without empathy for some of the men she met online, despite having been the victim of trolling herself. She spent some time exploring the common characteristics of those who become predator trolls and found quite a lot of unhappy upbringings in disfunctional families, where parenting was outsourced to the internet and children were left vulnerable to grooming by other angry disenfranchised people online. An experience that perpetuated hate. She also found many trolls to be educated intelligent, but hateful men (mostly), some of whom were married with children and you probably wouldn’t connect with this behaviour if you met them in passing in real life.

When disenfranchised individuals get together in unregulated forums that enable anonymity, bad behaviour can snowball and become amplified. It’s a sad reflection on what’s broken in society if support structures aren’t available for either the disenfranchised youth who are destined to become predator trolls given the right set of circumstances, or the victims they harass.

Gorman has been heavily criticised by some for giving attention to the people she met online, but having been a victim of trolling herself I suspect she did not undertake the exercise lightly. It’s a complex area that will not change without shining a light on it.

It will be interesting to see if cybercrime starts to creep into more crime fiction narratives in the coming years as there’s certainly plenty of content for it. The three authors at Law Week have produced non-fiction works that will prove to be excellent research material for fiction writers with an interest in this area, and present some fascinating insights and plenty of food for thought. The take away message for me was a comment by one of the speakers at the end…

“Take your radical empathy online.”

Recycling Books

Guggenheim, New York

In 2015 on a trip to New York I had the good fortune to meet a gentleman who worked at the University Club in Manhattan. It’s an elite private club established in 1861. Its purpose now is to promote Literature and Art and it’s based in a Mediterranean-Revival-Italian Renaissance palazzo-style purpose built building constructed in 1899 on West 54th Street. The Club hosts one of New York’s greatest private art collections which includes works by American artists Gilbert Stuart and Childe Hassam. It also has an extraordinary reading room with ceiling murals by H. Siddons Mowbray that were modeled after the Vatican Apartments (unfortunately I couldn’t take photos).

The gentleman gave us a tour of the building, library and rare book collection and it was one of the greatest book highlights of my life so far. Some of the rare books we were shown included:

‎⁨Strahov Monastery and Library⁩, ⁨Prague⁩, ⁨Czech Republic⁩
  • Ptolemy Geographical (1511): an early publication of geographical maps pre-dating knowledge of Australia’s existence, which does not appear in any of the drawings.
  • Domenico Fontana Architecture (1590): which described and illustrated the removal of the Vatican Obelisk from its old location behind the sacristy of St. Peter’s, where it had been since the reign of Caligula, to its present location in the center of the Piazza of St. Peter.
  • The natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands 3rd edition, Mark Catesby (1771): which contained drawing of the figures of fish, snakes, turtles, etc.
  • Handwritten Patent of Nobility, King Ferdinand to Don Pedro Jacinta Elantra (1750): a royal manuscript printed on velum (goat/sheep skin).
  • Trattato del giuoco della palla (1555), Antonio Scanio: the first book ever written on the rules of tennis.
  • Book of Common prayer (1770’s): which had a fore edge painting, a painting on the edge of pages that can only be viewed from a certain angle.
Guggenheim, New York

I set about reviewing and rationalising my own book collection for the first time in about ten years last week, and while it may not contain any valuable or rare books it was an interesting trip through my own history, because a book collection can tell us a lot about ourselves. They put on display an intimate insight into our intellectual lives, inspirations, influences and escapes. I remember the last time we did this exercise and took a big load of books to our local second hand bookshop. It was after a youthful phase of reading loads of self-help and personal growth books.

The shop owner foraged through the boxes, turned to us and said, “I hope you feel better now.”

Guggenheim, New York

This time the throw out pile, about eight boxes, includes an eclectic mix of mainly literary and genre fiction. There are also a small number of management, cooking and personal development books.

What we chose to keep on our bookshelves is as interesting as what we discarded. The unread; favourite reference books (cooking and gardening); the books we loved and reread with the bent spines and creased pages (like Tracks by Robin Davidson; The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger; poetry books; and anything by Jeanette Winterson); the nostalgic volumes that hold some fond memory from childhood that we cart from house to house even though we may never read them again (James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl; The Black Stallion Walter Farley; Midnight by Rutherford Montgomery); and the ones we read as adults that hold some historical meaning and we might revisit one day (Equus by Peter Schaffer; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance and all those tomes on the art of classical dressage written by the greats like François Robichon de La Guérinière and my own teacher Master Nuno Oliviera – even though I no longer ride)

Book Art, Adelaide

Of course when I mentioned discarding books, I didn’t mean throwing them away, that would be sacrilegious, there are many options to consider, disposal being the last resort. I have seen some amazing creative uses of old books from art installations to turning them into a bed base. I will attempt to find homes for as many as possible with friends, at second hand bookshops or by donating them to the local library, or op-shop, or one of the places around Melbourne listed below. Then I’ll set about filling up those empty shelves again.

Aboriginal Literacy Foundation: accepts donations of new and used children’s books. Refer to the criteria on their website before sending or delivering books.

Australian Books for Children of Africa (ABCA): appreciate good quality kindergarten to year seven books, both fiction and non fiction, new and second hand, including story books, dictionaries and atlases.

Lifeline: raise over 80% of their operational costs through retail activities such as Lifeline Shops and has drop off points around the country that accept books

National Prison Book Program: is run by teh The Australian Prison Foundation and has collection points in Melbourne

Street Library, Berlin

Street Library: Community home’s for books in the street where people can simply reach in and take what interests them; when they are done, they can return them to the Street Library network, or pass them on to friends. The website shows drop off points

Brotherhood books: When you donate or purchase a book from Brotherhood Books, you are supporting the Brotherhood of St Laurence in working for an Australia free of poverty. All the proceeds of these book sales are reinvested back into the charitable operations

Vinnies: accept donations of quality books – fiction, non-fiction, childrens

Do you ever clear out your book shelves? What do you do with your second hand books?

Let’s talk about sex

I’m writing a mystery/crime fiction novel. It’s full of secrets and lies and deceit and conflict, and a good dose of humour. It’s about a private investigator going undercover to try to find out who killed two activists, and why someone framed a dead junkie for their murders. It turns out the novel includes sex scenes, and I’m developing a whole new level of appreciation for romance writing all of a sudden because of that.

Sure I’m a Feminist,
Whitney Museum of American Art

Despite the fact the novel has a character who is a sex worker, I didn’t intend to include any sex scenes, it’s a crime novel after all, but my MC and a secondary character had other ideas…and it happened.

Writing those scenes made me more nervous than writing any others. Excuse the pun, but is that performance anxiety? Sex is a messy, clumsy, three-dimensional business. One minute you’re chatting over a great curry and the next there’s an entanglement of sweaty body parts. It’s not easy to bring to life with black ink on a page. To little information and its confusing, too much is tipping into pornography…besides people I know might read it.

The Golden Penis,
Prague Castle

The Bad Sex in Fiction Awards lingers like a shadow over my keyboard whilst I edit. Do I hint at a bit of foreplay and fade to black, or follow them into the bedroom and record what goes on in there? I don’t want to sound like a gynecologist, just include enough to get readers imaginations going and leave them to it. I question every word, knowing that crass metaphors and clumsy euphemisms seem to be what gets authors on that Awards list.

My other lingering doubt is the question of whether sex belongs in crime fiction at all, which some seem to have strong feelings about. Desire and conflict are infused in the genre, and as Kurt Vonnegut said, characters must want something ‘even if it’s only a glass of water.’ Lets face it, intimate relationships are ripe for conflict and what greater desire than the sexual urge? Crime novels revolve around a death, so bringing in its intimate cousin is not so strange, is it? Even crime crusaders have sex sometimes, look at James Bond.

Sex Life of Plants,
Flecker Botanical Gardens, Queensland

Sex and death are intimately connected, and not only because they are topics you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company. For some species in the animal kingdom death is the cost of sex. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and French social theorist Michel Foucault argued that the two topics are fused, that humans have a life instinct, and a death instinct, and that the death instinct pervades sexual activity. The French even frame orgasms as la petite mort, translated to the little death, likening the sensation of post orgasm to death.

If the scenes are important for the development of the character or the plot, and add tension, say because it’s someone the MC shouldn’t be getting intimate with, then they a have a purpose. Just make it low risk and avoid too many metaphors and similes I say.

What are your views on sex scenes in fiction? Do you have favourite or most disliked examples?

Main image: Street Art, San Francisco USA


Free Wheeling

It’s the end of the day, of the end of my second week back at work and as may become evident from this stream of consciousness blog, my brain is a little tired and addled. Yesterday it was Bohemian Rhapsody, but ten minutes ago I had the song The Wheels on the Bus going around in a loop in my head, when the wheels on the actual bus made an abrupt stop. As I write this I’m sitting on said bus, and it ain’t going nowhere, having broken down ten kilometres from home when the door jammed open. I’m reframing the experience as an opportunity for more writing time, very Buddhist of me considering what I want most, is to get home, eat dinner and put my feet up.

Buddha Walk, Crystal Castle, NSW

Speaking of Buddhism, as I understand it, the second noble truth is that suffering is due to attachments and expectations, to grasping and clinging. The idea of letting go makes me think about writing practice, when we need to hold on, and when we need to surrender.

I remember when I wrote my first draft, how chuffed I was to complete it, and how attached I was to those 60,000 odd words, little realising the lessons I was about to understand. Learning to edit was about coming to terms with letting go, to absorb feedback and use it to improve technique, to apply critical non-attachment.

It’s a funny thing that us writers can become so attached to those tiny squiggles on the page, invest so much of ourselves in them as if they were a living part of us and we will become less if we let them go.

A Public Practice, Vienna

I often think of writers as being most akin to musicians. When a musician wants to perfect their craft they will spend hours practicing. They study music theory, receive tutoring from a professional instructor, and develop a work ethic that gives them the grit to keep plugging away at it. They can’t afford to get attached to all those notes, to hoard them all and try to prevent them from floating away as they leave their instruments. They don’t think all their notes played in practice are wasted either. I wonder if writers would benefit from thinking of words more like musicians think of notes, embrace our practice as practice, know that not all our words are necessarily destined for the world, and that the cutting and pruning is about honing and perfecting our craft.

A Long Road Home, Nevada

My commute is a long journey, but hey, so is writing a book right? I’ve been editing for a long time now, and it occurred to me this week how my approach to the task has changed over time. It was a hard lesson, well learnt, when I did a structural edit of an early draft and realised I had to cut and rewrite all of the first five chapters. I think I put down my manuscript for a full week, fuming over the realisation, before I could bring myself to do it. Now after much application, I have become detached and carefree about editing, happy to cut and slash and relegate large chunks of text to the bin. I enjoy allowing fresh ideas to surface as I rewrite and rework, and apply what I have learnt to improve my manuscript.

…Oh, here comes another bus, and I must get on it.

Main image: London Bus, Esperanto Museum, Berlin